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Leica, Panasonic, and Sigma Join Forces for Full-Frame Development | News & Opinion

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Canon and Nikon entered the full-frame camera market within the past few weeks after years of giving way to Sony’s dominance in the space. Leica has been hanging around for a few years, with its full-frame autofocus SL anchoring the system.

But it didn’t take long for others to jump into the fray. Today, Leica announced the L-Mount Alliance, a partnership with longtime collaborator Panasonic, as well as Sigma, best known as a lensmaker, but also a company with its own camera system.

It’s no surprise to see Leica working together with Panasonic. The two companies have a long history of collaboration, ranging from Leica marketing Panasonic Lumix pocket cameras in the D-Lux line, or the more hands-on role Leica played in the development of the LX100, which was also sold as a D-Lux.

Sigma brings something more to the table. The company has shed the third-party, budget-brand albatross and reinvented itself as a maker of high-quality, affordable lenses under the guidance of CEO Kazuto Yamaki. Having a manufacturer whose main business is making lenses on board will help build out the lens library faster than Leica and Panasonic would be able to do on their own.

The Cameras

Leica didn’t announce a new version of the SL this morning—the current edition is about three years old, but still competes with newer models in image quality. Panasonic did shed the light on its first two full-frame cameras.

The Lumix S1R and S1 are Panasonic’s first two L-mount cameras. The S1R is the high-resolution, 47MP model, while the S1 sports a more modest 24MP image sensor. Aside from the sensor size, the cameras look to be physically identical, although details are scarce at this point. We don’t have a spec sheet, prices, or a solid shipping date yet, but we do expect the cameras to launch in the first half of 2019.

Panasonic Lumix S1R

We do know that the cameras will roll 4K footage at up to 60fps, are fully weather-sealed, and sport dual memory card slots, one SD and one XQD. Panasonic also touted a high flash sync speed, an electronic viewfinder that promises to deliver an image that’s close to what our eyes perceive, and in-body image stabilization.

The company is still using contrast-based autofocus tech, coupled with its Depth From Defocus (DFD) system to speed up operation. Most competitors use a mix of on-sensor phase and contrast detection, but Panasonic is sticking to its guns here. I’ve found DFD focusing to be quite speedy in practice, but I’ve had better results when tracking moving subjects with phase detection. We’ll reserve judgement on the S1 and S1R until they actually exist and we’re able to test them, of course.

I am happy to see a monochrome information LCD on the top of the S1 series body. We saw similar screens in the recently announced Nikon Z and Canon EOS R mirrorless systems. Sony has yet to include the feature in its mirrorless models.

It’s unclear at this point if Sigma will develop its own L-mount camera. Yamaki hinted that it was working on one at the press conference announcing the system. When asked how it became involved in the partnership, Yamaki stated that the company’s original plans for mirorrless involved creating its own mount. Perhaps this is why its Quattro H mirrorless camera used the existing SA SLR lens mount rather than one designed specifically for short flange-back lenses.

A full-frame Sigma L-mount camera would most likely bring something incredible to the table, a Foveon image sensor. The layered sensor technology, which captures image information in an inherently different manner than most other cameras, delivers photos with an incredible amount of detail, on par with medium format systems. It does have an Achilles heel—image quality falls apart when you move above ISO 400—but it’s an appealing system for many, including landscape photographers. We’ll just have to wait and see—Sigma hasn’t yet made its first spate of L-mount announcements.

The Lenses

Leica already has a half-dozen full-frame L-mount lenses, as well as a line of APS-C optics, which can be used with the larger sensor, albeit with a heavy crop and reduced resolution.

The full-frame options currently include the Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm f/2.8-4 ASPH., Super-Vario-Elmarit-SL 16-35mm f/3.5-4.5 ASPH., APO-Vario-Elmarit-SL 90-280mm f/2.8-4, Summilux-SL 50mm f/1.4 ASPH., APO-Summicron-SL 75mm f/2 ASPH., and APO-Summicron-SL 90mm f/2 ASPH. They don’t come cheap—prices range from $4,750 to $6,395.

It plans to release an additional five prime lenses, all f/2 designs, over the next two years. The Summicron-SL 35mm f/2 ASPH. and Summicron-SL 50mm f/2 ASPH. are coming in 2019. They’ll be joined by the Summicron-SL 21mm f/2 ASPH., Summicron-SL 24mm f/2 ASPH., and Summicron-SL 28mm f/2 ASPH. the following year. Prices have not yet been announced.

Panasonic is bringing three lenses to the table. Its 50mm f/1.4 is almost certainly going to be less expensive than the Leica option, and we’re also getting 24-105mm and 70-200mm zooms. It promises to deliver seven additional lenses in the year following the S-series launch.

Sigma hasn’t yet announced what it’s bringing to the table, but we expect it to deliver quality lenses at affordable prices based on its recent track record.

What About Micro Four Thirds?

What shouldn’t be lost in the buzz surrounding something new and shiny is that Panasonic is already heavily invested in a mirrorless camera system. Along with Olympus, it is the driving force behind the Micro Four Thirds system.

Micro Four Thirds sensors are smaller than full-frame—they use a 17 by 13mm size, while full-frame is 24 by 36mm—and it seems as if the industry is hitting a wall in sensor resolution. The most pixels we’ve seen squeezed into the smaller frame is 20MP, which limits video resolution, a significant concern for Panasonic’s customer base.

Panasonic promises to release an 8K-capable camera in time for the 2020 Olympics, which is set to take place in Tokyo. A 20MP sensor won’t cut it—each frame of 8K footage is about 33.2MP in size. The 47MP resolution offered by the S1R is telling here—it is dense enough to deliver 8K resolution, so it’s only a matter of Panasonic pushing processing and sensor readout speeds faster in order to net 8K from a future model.

That doesn’t mean Micro Four Thirds is going away. Panasonic promises it will co-exist with the L-mount. To reassure M43 system owners, the company announced a new Micro Four Thirds lens this morning. It’s a 10-25mm zoom—that’s 20-50mm in full-frame terms—with a constant f/1.7 maximum aperture. The company promises it will deliver image quality as good as prime lenses at every focal length. It is a big lens for the format, and while it won’t offer the same level of shallow depth of field as Canon’s ambitious 28-70mm f/2 zoom for its full-frame system, it does have a brighter aperture.

Meanwhile, we’re waiting to see what, if anything, Olympus does to react to the news. It’s not involved in L-mount development, so all of its eggs are proverbial Micro Four Thirds basket. Olympus’s Photokina press conference is later today, kicking off at 5:30 p.m. in Germany—11:30 a.m. EDT.

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